The Sun is Also a Star follows seventeen-year-olds Natasha and Daniel through their whirlwind, one-day romance in New York City. Both are immigrants: Daniel is a second-generation Korean American who very comfortably inhabits the gray area between being fully Korean and fully American, while Natasha's family illegally immigrated to the US from Jamaica when she was eight years old. Unlike Daniel, however, Natasha considers herself fully American. Through the differing experiences of Natasha, Daniel, and their respective families, the novel explores multiple iterations of the immigrant experience and what it means to identify, secretly or otherwise, as an immigrant. In doing so, the novel ultimately proposes that there's no one right way to be an immigrant or an American, and that attempting to impose one's "right" way of being an immigrant on someone else has heartbreaking consequences.
Natasha and Daniel's lives are both shaped by the facts surrounding their parents' immigration to the US. Daniel's parents, Dae Hyun and Min Soo, emigrated from South Korea soon after their marriage. Natasha's parents, Samuel and Patricia, came in waves: Samuel arrived in the US when Natasha was six, and Natasha and her mother followed two years later. Aside from the fact that Daniel was born in the US while Natasha wasn't, the difference that sets the two apart the most is that Daniel's parents came to the US legally, while Natasha's parents overstayed a tourist visa and lived under the radar for years to evade deportation. The fact that Natasha isn't a legal resident is anxiety-inducing in a number of ways and deeply influences how she conceptualizes her identity as an American. She clings to her American identity and wholeheartedly rejects her Jamaican roots, as she believes that doing so is the only way for her to make it in the US. She's proud of the fact that she doesn't have a Jamaican accent and insists that she doesn't remember anything of her childhood in Jamaica—her memories of the US take precedence. Because of these things in particular, she believes that Jamaica holds nothing for her, given how fully she identifies as an American. This belief in particular is what leads her to take matters into her own hands and fight her family's deportation notice, which they received prior to the start of the novel after Samuel received a DUI.
Even though Daniel's parents are US citizens, they exhibit a similar amount of anxiety as Natasha does about being "properly" American, even as they cling tightly to their identities as Koreans. They want Daniel and his older brother, Charlie, to attend the best college (in their eyes, Harvard), marry Korean-American women, and become doctors so they won't have to worry about money. Though Dae Hyun is the only one to name it as such, both he and Natasha experience the anxiety they do because of their intense belief in the American dream. Though the Bae and Kingsley families define the American dream somewhat differently (the Baes focus overwhelmingly on achieving financial success, while the Kingsleys came to the US in the first place because of Samuel's desire to be a famous actor on Broadway), both families ultimately conclude that the American dream either doesn't exist or doesn't exist exactly how they want it to. The Baes must come to terms with the fact that neither of their sons go on to become doctors (though Charlie does become a successful but corrupt politician), while Samuel, extremely disillusioned with his chances in the American entertainment industry, refuses to fight his family's deportation notice. For Natasha, the American dream is very simply to become passably American, as represented by the "good" fake social security card her mother purchased for her in Florida. Until Samuel was charged with the DUI, the card would've allowed Natasha to achieve all the milestones of a college-bound US citizen: financial aid, a degree, and eventually, a job. This suggests that though the immigrant experience isn't necessarily easy for anyone, it's especially risky and difficult for those without the luxury of citizenship, and further, that it's the marker of citizenship that enables someone any real chance at achieving some semblance of the American dream.
For the Bae family, the American dream simply ends up taking a slightly different route—their sons become successful and achieve financial success in their own ways—while for the Kingsley family, the consequences of their immigration status means that the American dream very literally doesn't exist for them, no matter how strongly Natasha identifies as an American. By showing a variety of characters who identify as Americans in wildly different ways and to very different degrees, the novel makes it abundantly clear that there's no one correct way to be American. However, by illustrating how successful those different characters are at being American, and how successful they are at achieving some semblance of the American dream, the novel suggests that being American and pursuing or achieving the American dream are often not one and the same. Regardless of the fact that the US is supposed to represent opportunity for all, in reality, those opportunities exist only for a select few.
Immigration and the American Dream ThemeTracker
Immigration and the American Dream Quotes in The Sun is Also a Star
She glances up at me again but shows no sign that she recognizes me, even though I've been here every day for the last week. To her I'm just another anonymous face, another applicant, another someone who wants something from America.
In the end, she chose both. Korean and American. American and Korean.
So they would know where they were from.
So they would know where they were going.
Does he want to know how it feels to be undocumented? Or how I keep waiting for someone to find out I don't belong here at all?
Probably not. He's looking for facts, not philosophy, so I write them down.
America's not really a melting pot. It's more like one of those divided metal plates with separate sections for starch, meat, and veggies.
When Natasha decides to wear hers in an Afro, it's not because she's aware of all this history. She does it despite Patricia Kingsley's assertions that Afros make women look militant and unprofessional. Those assertions are rooted in fear—fear that her daughter will be harmed by a society that still so often fears blackness.
"Doesn't matter. People always ask where I'm from. I used to say here, but then they ask where are you really from, and then I say Korea. Sometimes I say North Korea and that my parents and I escaped from a water dungeon filled with piranhas where Kim Jong-un was holding us prisoner."
In modern times, the sisters have largely disappeared from the collective consciousness, but the idea of Fate hasn't. Why do we still believe? Does it make tragedy more bearable to believe that we ourselves had no hand in it, that we couldn't have prevented it? It was always ever thus.
Yes, she'd been frustrated with him for years, but that one moment showed us all how far apart they really were now. Even Peter, who sides with my mother in all things, flinched a little.
Still. You couldn't fault her. Not really. My father had been dreaming his life away for years. He lived in those plays instead of the real world. He still does. My mother didn't have time for dreaming anymore.
Neither do I.
Should I tell him about my father's aborted dreams? Should I tell him that I think dreams never die even when they're dead? Should I tell him that I suspect my father lives a better life in his head?
I open my mouth to ask for more facts and specifics. I find them reassuring. The poem comes back to me. "'Hope' is the thing with feathers." I close my mouth. For the second time today I'm letting go of the details. Maybe I don't need them. It would be so nice to let someone else take over this burden for a little while.
"My parents are immigrants. They moved to this country for a better life. They work all the time so my brother and I can have the American Dream. Nowhere in the American Dream does it say you can skip college and become a starving artist."
"Yes," I say. "He would." But not because he's evil. And not because he's a Stereotypical Korean Parent. But because he can't see past his own history to let us have ours.
"What I care about is you, and I'm sure that love is enough to overcome all the bullshit. And it is bullshit. All the handwringing. All the talk about cultures clashing or preserving cultures and what will happen to the kids. All of it is one hundred percent pure, unadulterated bullshit, and I just refuse to care."